Our changes to Pulse and why print publishing needs a user-centric strategy

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Neil Thackray, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, B2B Media


We often talk about the importance of putting user engagement at the centre of publishing thinking. I posted about this earlier in the year and at Briefing Media we are driving our business by that important mantra. Interestingly that leads us to different decisions in each of the markets in which we operate.

For the past week we have been mostly focussed on our brand for the primary health care sector, Pulse. In this post I want to share with you our thinking and our bold step to change the frequency of the printed magazine from 36 times a year to monthly from early next year.

When we bought the business last March it was easy to see that there was a fundamental imbalance in the way Pulse operated. Like many media brands, it had seized on, at least emotionally, the notion of digital first. As a result, Pulse was already earning around half its revenue from digital audiences.

But it was clear that whilst much had changed, our method of publishing looked out of step with our revenue, and as we discovered through our own research it was increasingly out of step with our readers’ media consumption habits.

In the last ten years print readership amongst general practitioners (GPs) has dwindled for all print titles. Just a few years ago, joint industry measures of average issue readership (AIR) were commonly around 80 percent. Today scores are around half that zenith.

Ironically, print advertising revenues are still substantial, albeit smaller than they once were, and for Pulse we have been enjoying double-digit percentage growth in print advertising revenues this year. It’s very tempting to keep calm and carry on. But that would run counter to our user-centric approach.

Our own privately commissioned research showed that 70 percent of our target audience did not want to receive print based magazines every week. And we know why: many are using our online service (and that provided by others) to read news, to view clinical updates and to complete accredited learning programmes.

Why then, we asked ourselves on print press day, as our talented team worked late into the night to get the final few news pages away, does it make sense to publish something in print, to arrive on readers’ desks in two days’ time, that everyone knew about yesterday?

Our research also discovered that the content our readers rated us most highly for and valued the most wasn’t news, but more in-depth content: clinical analysis, our learning programmes, our insight into general practice management and our considered understanding of NHS policy. News, the stuff that drives print weeklies, was much less important to our readers – but our efforts leaned heavily towards the news agenda.

Even worse, not only were our readers increasingly using print media as a support to digital content rather than the other way round, but our team was 70 percent devoted to the creation and production of the print media. So 70 percent of our time is devoted to doing something that 70 percent of our readers would prefer we didn’t do. To us this sounded like the opposite of our user-centric mantra.

Our objective is simple: to publish the right content on the right platform to maximise the engagement we have with the target audience. We tested some hypotheses in research and learned that changing the frequency of our print title to monthly would increase print dwell time (the length of time spent reading) by 37 percent. That has to be good news for the effectiveness of advertising.

At the same time we can release resources from the grind of weekly print production to build more digital content to foster increased online engagement. That has to be good for advertisers too.

Changing role of print in B2B media

We think print has a future. But the future must be in tune with audience consumption behaviour. We will still produce all the content we produced before: news (now published digitally only), investigative reporting, clinical analysis, learning tools, practice management guidelines and so on.

But we will now have a print title that will be a genuinely engaging read and a powerful evangelist for the richness of our online content. Additionally we now have the time to devote to constantly improving our digital publishing.

We think that business media, even in print, has a great future. However for some media companies that future is compromised by short-term cuts in costs, which lead to weaker content and reduced reader engagement. The future of print publishing should not be a revenue-cost equation. Successful print depends on meeting the needs of today’s readers and that can’t be achieved by delivering yesterday’s news.

Neil Thackray is co-founder of Briefing Media, the parent company of TheMediaBriefing.com, Pulse and Farmers Guardian.

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